For the last 10 years, many of us have been plagued by ladybugs invading our homes each fall. That’s why it may be hard to believe that some species of ladybugs (or lady bird beetles as they are more correctly called) are disappearing.
But it’s true, and entomologists at Cornell University have launched a new citizen science project to find out what’s happening.
One obvious answer is that the invasive, multi-colored Asian ladybugs that invade our homes may be the problem. Perhaps they outcompete or even eat native species.
Finding answers is the purpose of the Lost Ladybug Project. Over the last 20 years many native ladybug species that were once common have become rare.
This is of practical concern because ladybugs are voracious predators of garden and agricultural pests, especially aphids.
The Lost Ladybug Project is enlisting volunteers from around the country to search for and photograph ladybugs. Images are then sent to Cornell for study. The plan is that every photograph will be permanently linked to a digital image of a particular ladybug.
Though the Web site includes a field guide for identification, each image will be examined by trained specialists to minimize identification errors.
On a broader scale, the project will also allow participants to gain an understanding of the problems of invasive species and the value of biodiversity and conservation.
To participate, go to the Web site www.lostladybug.org and follow the directions. Instructions include tips on how to find, collect and photograph ladybugs and how to submit the images.
The best places to find ladybugs are around lush vegetation, especially if aphids are present. Agricultural fields are also great sites, but be sure to get landowner permission first and ask if the field has been recently sprayed with pesticides.
To encourage participation, the Web site points out:
– This is not a photo contest, so experience with a camera is not necessary.
– The more photos the better, even if they are all of the same kind of ladybug.
– Zeros are useful data. Not finding ladybugs is evidence that ladybugs are absent from an area.
– Other useful data include precise location information, time, date, weather conditions and habitat.
Though the primary audience of the Lost Ladybug Project is children 5 to 11 from rural and suburban areas, amateur naturalists of all ages are welcome, and most children will need some adult supervision to participate in the project.
The project focuses on children because they can understand the scientific method and use the simple tools required. Even first graders can understand the process of asking questions and making observations to solve problems.
One benefit of enlisting large numbers of volunteers is to increase the chance that rare or disappearing species might be found.
For example, in October 2006 Laurel, 11, and Jonathon Penhale, 10, found a rare nine-spotted ladybug near their home in Arlington, Va. This was the first individual of this species collected in the eastern U.S. in more than 14 years and one of only seven individuals collected in the U.S. since 2000.
Every observation of rare individuals indicates the time, place and habitat where that species existence is confirmed.
Observations of rare species, even by children, can sometimes motivate specialists to visit areas for more detailed studies.
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Citizen science has exploded in recent years, and I’ve been planning to compile a list of projects, but reader Glenn A. Walsh of Pittsburgh beat me to it.
With his permission, his list can be found at http://buhlplanetarium2.tripod.com/FAQ/citizenscience.html. I will also post this link on my Web site.
A few of the projects listed at Walsh’s site that I have not published previously include:
– Globe at Night — Light pollution awareness project: www.darkskiesawareness.org/gan.php
– CamClickr — Online volunteers look at archived bird images to help scientists by classifying bird breeding behaviors: http://watch.birds.cornell.edu/nestcams/clicker/clicker/index.
– SKYWARN: SKYWARN Weather Spotters watch out for severe weather in their neighborhood and report severe conditions to the local National Weather Service office by toll-free telephone number, amateur radio or e-mail: www.nws.noaa.gov/skywarn/.